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Nuclear Options

Theater Review: Copenhagen


Published February 2, 2006 at 2:36 a.m.

What if a rogue state, whose leader foments anti-Semitism, developed a nuclear weapon? Is memory a fragile tissue of changeable chimeras, or a series of self-justifying lies we tell ourselves and others? Holocaust-denying Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and fable-spinning memoirist James Frey have made recent headlines with such troubling questions. But in 1941, when two physicists went for a walk after dinner, these questions were also in play -- along with the fate of the world.

In Copenhagen, playwright Michael Frayn tackles the tangled relationship between German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his Danish mentor Niels Bohr, two central figures in the development of atomic physics whose friendship melted down at a white-hot historical crossroads. The script overflows, restlessly, with Big Ideas: moral collisions between science and politics; unanswerable yet fascinating "what-ifs" of history; the maddening mutability of memory; and painful personal issues of trust, misunderstanding and intent.

With richly drawn characters and a wealth of weighty themes, this meaty play is emotionally and intellectually engaging. In the current Vermont Stage production, however, director Stephan Golux erred in confining his three-person cast to a needlessly small oval sandbox. With one of the FlynnSpace's black poles as its "nucleus," the shape forces the actors to orbit like particles within an atom. While the metaphor is appropriate to the science, the oval rendered the action claustrophobic, and emphasized the long play's wordiness.

In this, Golux seems to have missed a part of Frayn's mission. For the characters to rediscover what took place on their fateful walk -- and, by extension, to reassess who they are and what they have meant to each other over the years -- they must re-enact what happened. Yet limiting the actors' range of motion appeared at times to restrict their range of emotions, leaving them to spin out speeches instead of inhabiting their characters' words.

Frayn's point of departure for Copenhagen is the historical speculation over what happened between Heisenberg and Bohr during the German scientist's September 1941 visit to his teacher's Nazi-occupied hometown. After dinner with Bohr and his wife Margrethe at their home, the two men went outside for a stroll to escape the microphones presumably planted inside. They returned 10 minutes later barely speaking, their friendship ruptured. Years later, even the men themselves could not agree on exactly what had taken place.

Why was a tiff between two prickly professors of earth-shattering consequence? Because together they had helped invent modern physics, and they were among the few men in the world potentially able to figure out how to turn a split nucleus into The Bomb.

The play probes the many unknowns about that night. Did Heisenberg try to recruit Bohr for the Nazis? Did he seek intelligence about the Allied program? Did he obliquely pose a scientific question to advance his research? Did he seek Bohr's blessing to assuage his moral qualms? All of these questions lead to the scariest speculation of all: What if Heisenberg had succeeded in helping Hitler acquire a nuclear weapon before the Allies did?

The entire action of the play takes place with the characters looking back from the afterlife, because, as Margrethe says, "Some questions remain long after their owners have died. Lingering like ghosts." Ethereal trails of sand poured from a small spotlight above the stage before each act, and at the play's end, helped to conjure the otherworldly setting.

As specters, the characters roam freely between places and times, but two periods absorb their primary focus: the disputed night in 1941, which they revisit several times; and the three years in the 1920s when a young Heisenberg worked under Bohr's tutelage at the Copenhagen Institute. In those heady days, Bohr became a father figure to the willful, brilliant Heisenberg as they formulated a new understanding of theoretical physics.

As recollections unfold, the scientists often use metaphors from their work to analyze their behavior, such as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. "The more I've explained, the deeper the uncertainty has become," he says. Abstruse particles of physics don't cloud Margrethe's memory, however; she requires the men to give "plain language" accounts of their actions. As the de facto, sometimes exasperated mother in this father-son relationship, she provides arch commentary and corrects rose-colored distortions.

Donald Grody portrayed Niels Bohr with warmth and charm. He depicted a man who finds searching his memory like rummaging through a messy, treasure-filled attic -- alternately frustrating and joyful. He used small physical gestures to reflect his character's inner turmoil, absent-mindedly twisting his fingers in his hand or furrowing his brow asymmetrically in concentration. His eyes glinted -- expressing befuddlement, anger or affection -- from beneath bushy white eyebrows.

Grody and Melissa Lourie, as Margrethe, created a convincing portrait of the Bohrs as a tightly bonded couple. With a believable mix of gentle touch and firm speech, they shared the easy rapport of a lifelong partnership that included weathering severe trials: the death of a child and a narrow escape from the Nazis. Lourie's most moving expression was the inward smile -- knowing, forgiving, loving -- of someone who "was formed by nature [to be] not one but half of two."

Lourie gave a spirited interpretation of Margrethe -- calm, comic or caustic as the situation required. She effectively used costuming to match her age to that of Margrethe, who was 52 in 1941: a salt-and-pepper chignon, peach silk shirtwaist dress and frumpy shoes. The sand, however, made walking in the chunky heels perilously difficult -- even the men shuffled somewhat unsteadily. While the scrunching of sand made a more soothing sound than clomping dress shoes against a wooden floor, the artistic choice was hard to justify when balanced against the distractions of actors' unnatural gaits and the risk of a stumble.

The tight oval seemed to have the most confining impact on Mark Nash's performance as Werner Heisenberg -- at least on the play's opening night. Tall and lanky, he just didn't have enough room to move, and his arms often stayed rigidly at his sides. A loose suit and an odd wig accentuated the stiff body language. Although Nash -- like Grody and Lourie -- had mastered mountains of dialogue, filled with arcane scientific terms and German names, he never seemed to relax fully into the challenging role.

The German scientist has the most explaining to do, and thus has many of Copenhagen's most impassioned monologues. Heisenberg spent the last 30 years of his life trying to justify having stayed behind in his homeland to work under Hitler's regime. Nash captured the haunted schoolboy in Heisenberg, eager to vindicate himself with his beloved teacher. And he loosened up considerably in the passages where the men recall happier times. But when Heisenberg describes his childhood in Germany, ravaged after the first World War, or a harrowing bicycle journey across his country, destroyed by war a second time, one expects a welling arc of emotion. Nash's flat interpretation of these pivotal moments limited the audience's identification with, or sympathy for, a complex character the playwright tried hard to humanize.

Copenhagen doesn't resolve the issue of what happened that night. Why doesn't Frayn answer the question? Dramatically, it's frustrating -- a long, intellectually demanding script screams for a resolution. Historically, though, it is accurate: We don't know what took place.

But the inspiration for not resolving the story seems to lie more in the science -- as Heisenberg puts it, "the strangest truth about the universe that any of us has stumbled on since relativity." Namely, that observation and description of even the tiniest particle changes the particle itself. To answer an unresolved question, then, might invite an uncontrollable chain reaction of other consequences -- inaccurate, unintended and perhaps worse than not knowing. As uncomfortable as it may be, the play suggests, we have to learn to live with uncertainty.